Trust me. I’m a designer.

There’s been a lot written by designers bemoaning clients who hire their services and then spend the entire project systematically dismantling a design and treating the whole process as a vanity project for their own ego.

So, I’m not going to repeat any of that. I want to talk more about the ‘creative’ process, what it is, what it means and how to traverse it and end up with a quality product at the end.

Just the other day a client asked me about a design that another agency had done. The relationship had broken down and I was called in to pick up the pieces. See this previous post for my thoughts on this. Anyway, this particular design exhibited a tabbed device at the top of the page which would be used for product and service sales touts. She asked how it would function and how it would look when one of the alternative (very brightly coloured) tabs was selected. ‘Will the whole panel be that colour?’ How are you going to make it work?’ These weren’t hypothetical questions. She wanted answers there and then. I explained to her that part of the design process would be to look at the colours, how the active states of the tabs worked and do some explorations to see how we could make it robust and practical for the CMS but both effective from a sales perspective and aesthetically pleasing. A tall order, but that’s our job as designers.

She seemed a bit put out by this. I got the impression that she thought I would apply some Photoshop filter in five minutes and all would be good. The fact that we would need to spend a couple of hours defining how it would work seemed strange to her.

I was beginning to realise maybe why the relationship with the previous agency had turned sour.

You see, ‘design’ is a process. No matter how many designers out there think that they are ‘far too creative to follow any processes’ it is just that. It’s not a five minute lash up implementing the first thing that comes into your head.

Let me roughly delineate how this process works for me.

  1. Play
    Read around the subject, look at some competitors, look at some completely unrelated sites / print materials, cut stuff out of magazines, go to a gallery.
  2. Think
    Scamp has a great line on his blog ‘When you see me staring out of the window, that’s when I’m working.” Nuff said.
  3. Digest
    During this part all those bits of inspiration and the thinking comes together and begins to manifest itself in some form of high-level design concept.
  4. Refine, rework, erase and do again
    The most tortuous bit. Getting the bloody idea to work! Sometimes it hurts, sometimes it flows. Different designers work differently. Some like to do 10 iterations of an entire design. Some work on bits to get each element right. Whatever, this is about worrying the details and crafting the design. Lot’s of tea works for me.
  5. Develop and extend
    The design is now worked up into site page templates or pages of a brochure.

Now there are minutiae to this that I haven’t gone into, but you get the idea. It’s step 4 that’s the crunch point. And this is what I was trying to explain to my client. There lies the nitty gritty of making it work. This is where the executional touches often occur that transform the design from good to great.

If there is too much intervention and watering down at this point a good design can turn bad. Very bad.

I’ve been watching Kevin McCloud‘s ‘Big Town Plan‘ programme over the last few weeks about the regeneration of Castleford in Yorkshire. Kevin follows the progress of the town council, the local residents and designers and architects as they struggle with urban regeneration projects throughout the town over a five year period.

Kevin, being a great advocate of ‘the design process’, is visibly put out when, at various times, this process isn’t adhered to. When the process is bypassed and ideas watered down by ill informed councillors the result is at best lackluster, at worst completely unfit for purpose.

But when there were strong project champions in the local residents, a visionary architect who listened to the residents (the clients) and little interfering by the council some astoundingly beautiful pieces of architecture were created. The bridge across the river being a shining example. This project exhibited a great process, strong leadership, a client who had faith in the designer but asked well-informed, difficult questions at the right times in the project. In essence, everyone pulled in the right direction, worried the details, left egos at the front door and made it work.

The most successful projects that I’ve worked on have had strong client leadership. A champion who works with the designer to reach the best possible solution. They drive it through, supporting the designer with everything they need to create a successful product. They give the designer both freedom and restraint – difficult but worthwhile. And the designer repays by taking on board client comments because they’re timely and intelligent. And they strive to make it work.

Castleford’s town motto is ‘Possum si volo’. ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way’. And this is so true when it comes to commissioning great design.

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3 Responses to Trust me. I’m a designer.

  1. mystacon says:

    Nice post. It’s frustrating for sure when clients just expect you to be able to pull design solutions out of a hat. What really gets on my nerves is that you just know they think we’re all just being high brow and pretentious about our craft.

    Your process reminds me of the James Webb Young book ‘A technique for producing ideas’, have you ever read it? It’s really cool and a very quick read. Check it out…

    Also, you’ve probably already seen it but issue 237 of ALA has some interesting thoughts on this very subject…

    Maybe some sort of client education campaign is whats needed? Start thinking of names so we can get the URL! (kidding)…

  2. James Higgs says:

    Top post. What’s always amazed me is how clients just disappear from projects. They are spending a good amount of money on their website, and yet just expect you to get on with it and produce something they’re happy with.

    Equally baffling is their inability to try to *understand* a design. They think that just by looking at it they will be able to produce a coherent opinion. All too often, the first response is the only one that matters. The idea of having to live with a design for a while doesn’t seem to enter into it.

    I well remember a designer we both know reacting badly to a client commenting on a cluttered page by saying “well, you can just clean that up with design”.

    People deserve the designs they get.

  3. Pingback: Jumping Through Hoops – links for 2008-09-17

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